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02.27.08

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Phaedra

A family must adjust to a new neighborhood in 'I Was Born, But ...' by Yasujiro Ozu.

Wizard of Ozu

Ozu's marvelous 'I Was Born, But ...' and Eisenstein's 'October' show at California Theatre

By Richard von Busack


THEY ARE all ready to go, the technological improvements that make everyone capable of creating a feature film. But the truth is that any technique has to be measured against the work of old masters, and two peerless examples of silent film at it best will be shown at the California Theatre during Cinequest, brought in by the Stanford Theatre.

A really perfect film title, I Was Born, But ... , showing Feb. 29, heralds Yasujiro Ozu's beloved 1932 silent comedy/drama—"one of the finest comedies ever made," according to the Japanese film scholar Donald Richie It's about the class struggle in pre-war Tokyo. A family on its way up moves to a new and more affluent neighborhood. There, the new kids on the block—the tough, mischievous sons of a salaryman—come into conflict with the pampered offspring of their father's boss.

Unfortunately, the schoolkids are about to learn that merit doesn't add up to everything in their world, any more than it is in ours. They are eyewitness to their father's capitulation, and they learn about the way a man with children has to go along to get along. When the father hits the sake and explains to his sons that work is how food gets on the table, the children decide to cut out eating. Ozu's film argues that compassion can sometimes find a way through the prison of circumstances.

The next week's silent film offers an alternative to submission to the class system, although a drastic alternative. On the following Friday, March 7, Sergei Eisenstein's triumph of exuberant communist art October (1927) makes a Bolshevik out of the viewer—at least for the length of its running time. October commemorates the 10-year anniversary of the Russian revolution. First, it's "The same old story: Hunger and War." World War I drags on. The post-czarist democracy prolongs the conflict. The government is led by the supine Kerensky—here, a strutting half-pint.

The names have changed and the statues of the old lords crumble, but the oppressors stay the same. Revolutionaries are done to death by vicious, clownlike fat ladies. Priests swinging smoking incense censers perfume the rot of the old society. Meanwhile, a human lightning bolt named Lenin is about to strike. He arrives, to the crowd's frenzy; perched like an eagle over the clifflike diagonal angles of banners and flags.

The fierceness of this film's forward motion reaches its crescendo with revolution itself. October is an inseparable mix of re-enactment, documentary and wishful thinking; it's as quaint as Social Realist art and as current as Transformers. While in real life, the events that followed the Russian Revolution brought only new oppression, new trauma and new rot, by contrast Eisenstein's revolution in montage succeeded brilliantly; his techniques are still used and rediscovered by filmmakers. Jim Riggs will accompany the action at the California Theatre's organ during the Ozu screening; Dennis James will accompany October.


I WAS BORN, BUT ... shows Feb. 29 at 7pm, and OCTOBER shows March 7 at 7pm, both at the California Theatre.


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